“Batman: The Killing Joke” has always been one of my favorite graphic novels despite the darkness that it's pages contain so when I first heard that they were turning it into a DC animated movie I had very high hopes for this film. After seeing the movie I have to say I have mixed emotions about it.
To the movie's credit the actual parts from the comic are done really well. There are moments that seem like they are lifted directly from the pages and it’s during those moments that the film really strikes gold. Seeing the origin of one of Batman’s most iconic villains on the big screen as well as Batgirl’s tragic story that turns her into Oracle is pretty epic. The animation is a little different but I warmed up to it's style very quickly.
That being said there are other parts of the film that simply didn’t work. “The Killing Joke” graphic novel is a shorter book so it was well known that they were going to have to add things to the story to make it a full length movie out of the source material. The first part of the film focuses on Barbara Gordon otherwise known as Batgirl and her relationship with Batman.
Barbara works as a librarian who vents to her friend about the man in her life. When asked about their relationship it’s complicated at best. This is where the film started to loose me, Barbara is attracted to Batman and before the events from the source material start to happen the two heroes have sex and then avoid each other because the nature of their relationship has changed so much.
As a fan of the comics having Batman and Batgirl sexually involved with each other just doesn’t sit right with me. It goes against the characters that I have come to know and love. I understand this was Brian Azzarello’s, the film’s writer’s chance to put his own stamp on a very strong female character in the Batman universe. When discussing adding more to the story Azzarello even said
“I was like ‘How do we approach this? I gotta write some stuff about her in here.’ So Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett came to me and said ‘We want to make this a feature, we’re going to need you to write something that takes place beforehand.’ Rather than pad out the actual Killing Joke more. Immediately, I said Barbara needs a character arc, she’s got nothing, and they were like ‘That’s what we think, too.’”
However the direction they took went against the grain. From a writing stand point you can justify Barbara’s attraction to Bruce. He’s an older man who is arguably the most intelligent man she will ever meet. He also happens to be in the best physical condition humanly possible and he takes a vested interest in her and her life. Taking her under his wing as her mentor Bruce teaches and trains Barbara by pushing her harder both physically and mentally than anyone else ever could. Given all that how could any other man she meets in her life compare to Bruce Wayne. In fact I’d be willing to bet that if you went into your local bookstore and went to the romance section it wouldn’t take you very long to find a book that has a description very similar to the one above. I don’t like Barbara being attracted to Bruce but from a writer’s point of view I can see how you could justify it.
What really seems out of place is that Bruce returns the emotions. When the tension between the two comes to head Barbara is the one to initiate sex and after a moment of hesitation Bruce gives in. The Bruce/Batman I read about every month would never do this for a couple of reasons. First Batman has always seemed like the father figure to the entire Bat-family. He loves each of his partners like his own kids and will always risk his own life if it means protecting them. Given that history the sexual relationship between Batman and Batgirl just seems wrong. Second other than Alfred, Jim Gordon is one of Batman’s closest friends that he has. I personally don’t see Batman sleeping with Jim’s one and only daughter. You could argue that letting his daughter fight crime is a betrayal of their friendship as well but if that’s what she decides to do there’s not much Batman could do to stop her. By training her and making her a partner he’s doing everything he can to keep her safe. Sleeping with her however is something Batman can control and just goes against his character.
Having them romantically involved seems like cheap way to try and make you care more about Batgirl than you normally would so that when she gets shot by Joker and paralyzed it has more of an emotional impact. However what it does instead is taint the relationship that Batman and Batgirl have in the first place. Catching Joker after he shoots her and kidnaps Gordon is not just about rescuing his friend but also making sure Barbara’s attacker is brought to justice; keep in mind she is like his adoptive daughter so Batman has plenty of incentive to find Joker without needing to have sex with Barbara.
What I would have liked to see instead of a romantic relationship between Batman and Batgirl would be have Nightwing and Batgirl involved giving Batgirl the story arc she needs and keeping true to the characters we know. The problem with that is Nightwing isn’t involved in the graphic novel so if you want to stay true to the book the movie is based off of you run into problems. There are ways around this however, like having Batman say Nightwing and Batgirl are too distracted and decide to send Nightwing on a mission out of Gotham that way when the events of “The Killing Joke” start you can stay true to the story.
All that being said I did enjoy the movie and that is largely because once the actual story from the comics start happening on the screen it’s like watching a comic book come to life. They stayed true the story and handled Barbara getting shot very well. This is a moment from the comic that has been the center of debate snice the comic’s release in 1988. After Joker shoots Barbara he undresses her and takes a bunch of naked photos of her in order to torture Commissioner Gordon. It is left up to the audience to decide whether or not he raped her as well. The film does it in the same way and to add my own two cents to the debate I’ll go on record and say that he didn’t. To me The Joker gets more pleasure out of manipulating people. If we look at Harley Quinn who is madly in love with The Joker you can see how he likes to operate. He doesn’t feel the same way about her that she does for him but he gets pleasure in the fact that he turned her from good to bad. I think the power of the unknown is more important for him in his quest to make Jim Gordon go insane. By taking the photos of Barbara nude and dying Jim will of course think the worse has happened but by not confirming or denying it will only help to drive him insane faster.
The film ends in the same way as the graphic novel. Letting the audience decide Joker’s fate based off how they interpret what they see and hear.
One cannot ignore the fact that even though "The Killing Joke" was considered canon in the DC universe for a number of years and won the Eisner Award for "Best Graphic Album" in 1989 there is a lot of controversy surrounding the comic in general. The comic does an excellent job of adding layers and depth to a character who before caused mass destruction because he was crazy. The problem is that in order to build up one character, a villain, they did it at the brutal expense of another. They took a female hero and had her sexually assaulted and crippled just to tell a story about their most iconic villain. To add further insult to injury she remains crippled and becomes Orcale who in of herself is a strong female character but she isn't out there fighting crime as Batman's equal. In fact it wasn't until DC did their "New 52" that she could walk again. According to "Batgirl #4 she was a paraplegic for three years before having a surgery at a South African clinic. That's all well and good for the story but keep in mind that "The New 52" didn't happen until 2011. That's over 20 years later that Barbara got use of her legs back.
People have also said that if this had happened to a male character the male hero would have recovered and been just fine. I understand what they are saying because we see that happen again and again in comics and other forms of entertainment but I would also point out that Jason Todd, the second Robin, was beat to death with a crowbar at the hands of The Joker in "Batman: A Death in the Family" which was published in 1988 and it wasn't until 2005's "Under the Hood" story arc that he was resurrected. Granted he died because fans voted to have him killed with 5,343 for it and 5,271 against his death and fans didn't vote to have Barbara shot and then stripped all to torture her father. Maybe as Batman fans we accept darker things happening to our heroes because the comic's origin is so dark itself but that's a topic for another time.
To be fair when Alan Moore wrote "The Killing Joke" it was not considered canon, it wasn't until years later that it was adopted into the story. DC comic's realized the fact that this was and has been a dark spot in their history. So much in fact that in Batgirl #49 right before the comic ends before the events of the "DC Comics Rebirth" we find out that a bunch of Batgirl's memories were fake including the events of "The Killing Joke."
As I stated before this is one of my favorite graphic novels because I love The Joker and learning more about his past, the fact that it's at the expense of Batgirl who has become one of my favorite partners of The Dark Knight is upsetting. Everyone has to decide for them self whether the comic is worth reading because of the treatment of Barbara just to further the depth of The Joker. Because of the impact the graphic novel had on the characters and even the fans I still think it's worth reading.
With all the controversy surrounding the comic there was a missed opportunity to fix some of the mistakes that were made with the original. What would have helped a lot was a better character arc for Barbara then the one we were given but it seems that it wasn't really even a thought on their minds. This was made clear at the San Diego Comic Con panel for the film. According to Bleeding Cool reporter Jeremy Konrad the films writers were asked a question by a Joker cosplayer why they would downplay Barbara, a strong female character by making her story about needing a man in her life they disagreed saying she still is a strong female character to which Konrad sarcastically shouted, "Yeah, by using sex and then pining for Bruce." Brian Azzarello's response was "Wanna say that again? Pussy?" That sums up the problems surrounding the film and graphic novel pretty neatly, thanks Brain.
Overall I would give the film a 6.5 out 10. I didn’t care for the added story and character development they did for Batgirl simply because it felt out of place with the Batman universe as a whole. When the graphic novel part of the story begins in the film it’s all great and really enjoyable sadly the start of the film makes it an uphill battle that it just can’t recover from. If you haven’t read the graphic novel do yourself a favor and go read it. If you’re a fan of the book you’ll enjoy the movie just go in knowing it starts a little rough.